The American people want pot. But how long will it be before they get it?
A recent Gallup poll found that, for the first time, most Americans support legalized pot. In fact, it’s a sizable majority: 58 percent, up 10 points from the last such poll in 2012, and up eight points since the closest result, 50 percent in 2011.
That means this is the first time the public has genuinely put its back into legalization. The numbers have been rising steadily for as long as Gallup has asked the question (just 12 percent favored legal weed in 1969), and now that the percentage has topped half, it’s only likely to climb.
But what does that mean for the future of cannabis in America? Will Congress change its tune and reform federal drug law? Will the Department of Justice back off enforcement even further?
Don’t bet on either of those things, at least not in the immediate future. Like many issues that involve rapidly changing public opinion, we can expect national lawmakers to follow slowly in the people’s wake.
First of all, Congress is unlikely to legalize at the federal level, at least not within the next few election cycles. The House of Representatives is controlled by right-wing Republicans, and even with a few libertarian-minded congressmen in their mix, they probably won’t turn on their religious base by admitting the drug war is a pathetic failure.
Even if the House turns blue in 2014 or 2016, don’t expect a sudden about-face on marijuana policy. Pot has been categorized as the most dangerous, least beneficial kind of drug – up there with heroin and LSD – for a very long time. Moving it from that list to a more appropriate category where it could be legalized and regulated is more than just a tuneup of language in the federal code.
Entire government institutions depend on weed being illegal. Without it, the Drug Enforcement Administration would lose half its mandate. There aren’t exactly enough coke deals to keep a massive federal law enforcement agency in business. Expect the DEA and other anti-drug outfits to throw everything they’ve got against efforts to reform the drug schedules or legalize weed nationally.
But what about the Justice Department? The Obama administration has already announced that Justice won’t interfere with states that legalize as long as they enforce certain federal priorities, such as eliminating violence in the pot trade.
There may be more room for short-term change here, but that remains to be seen. Justice has said before that it wouldn’t make marijuana enforcement a priority, only to make marijuana enforcement a priority by incarcerating record numbers of users, growers and sellers across the country.
The real problem here, though, is, again, the DEA. On paper it’s part of the Justice Department, but in reality it plays by its own rules – or no rules at all. The DEA may continue to go after pot aggressively, even in legal states, regardless of what Obama and his underlings declare. The president himself seems unable to rein in this agency.
The best hope for rapid change on the cannabis realm still belongs to the states. A few of them are expected to take action over the next three years, and more could follow. Only once a decent number of states have successfully legalized is the federal government likely to follow suit.